Charles Oakley tells it all in an exclusive interview
Back in the day, Charles Oakley had a reputation as an enforcer because of his physical style of play and intimidating physique. In the interview, the former Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks player discusses looks back at his time playing alongside Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady for the Toronto Raptors, and why the Phoenix Suns – who are in the NBA odds to win the Western Conference this season – would be the current team he would most like to play for.
Who stands out most in the current NBA season?
Charles Oakley: “In the East, a lot of good teams are not really playing well right now. Out West, you’ve got Golden State, the Lakers have got injuries, Utah is Utah.
“It’s early, but I think Golden State has been a surprise without Klay. They have a great system. I think everybody plays to Curry. Golden State is more defined because everybody knows Curry’s the main guy, and everybody has to play through him. Some other teams are still struggling to find their leaders and this and that. LA will be up and down all year because Westbrook is Westbrook. His mindset in basketball is different than LeBron’s or the other guys. He plays into himself sometimes. But as soon as LA finds a system, a top seven or eight guys – Carmelo’s starting now, he was coming off the bench earlier in the season – but it’s going to be a rollercoaster this year, I think.
“In the West, think everybody had the Clippers and the Lakers or maybe Phoenix and the Lakers, but now you’re seeing Golden State. You’ve got to answer them now. The way Golden State’s playing, you’ve got to make them the favorite right now because they’re playing midseason basketball. They’ve got it clicking on all cylinders. Curry is cooking.
“KD is playing good, but I think Brooklyn’s problem is they’re still trying to find their rotation without Kyrie. LaMarcus Aldridge should be starting, I think, but they’re going with a small line-up.”
Is Steph Curry running a lock for the 2021-22 MVP award?
“Right now, Curry’s running away with it. You know KD is going to be always in the conversation because of his skill level. He’s so good of a player. Out West, I don’t see anybody else. Everybody else is playing more team ball. You can see around the league how scoring is coming down. Everybody’s trying to get more efficiency. They’re trying to build now for later.”
Imagine that you played in today’s NBA; which team would you want to play for?
“Right now? I would want to play with Phoenix. I think all they needed was a tough big man last year, and they could have won a championship. If they had Bobby Portis in Phoenix, they would have beat Milwaukee. I love his game and what he does. He can shoot the three, he can post, he can rebound, he’s athletic, and he’s tough, and that’s what Phoenix needed, another veteran tough guy.
“All Ayton needed was somebody beside him to teach him a little more. He’s young. I think they needed a four who can play the five, like Bobby Portis.”
Is there any new Charles Oakley out there?
“I don’t see that in basketball anymore. I watch it, but I don’t see that rough and tough. The game has changed. It’s more of a sexy game now, more of a global league, and I think that the rules take a lot of toughness out of the game.
“You’ve still gotta be tough to play anyway because it’s 82 games, a lot of physicality, traveling, and preparation. But as far as all-out rough and tough, I don’t see any player like that.
“My thing is, when I played, I think I could fit in any system, and I could play with any player. So my job would be the same: defense, rebound, protect the basketball. Once you build a house two days later, you might want to build another house because you don’t like it. You can’t. You just got to deal with the one you built, put the furniture in, and keep living. It’s just a different game. I think I’d get more rebounds now because the field goal percentage is a lot lower. So I’d probably average at least 15 and 15 in this era.”
Have the Knicks lived up to your expectation?
“If you finished in the top four last year, and you feel you added a couple of pieces to your team, you should finish back in the top three or four this year. When you’ve got teams like Chicago and Washington playing outstanding basketball, that’s two teams looking to make the playoffs, and right now, they’re in front of them.
“They’re young. Julius Randle is not playing the way he was playing last year, so when he gets back on his game, the Knicks will pick up the pace but right now, people are going to be talking to him.”
What about another of your former teams, the Bulls?
“They made some great transactions during the summer. Lonzo Ball, a true point guard, [DeMar] DeRozan’s another leader. They just broke some pieces in, and right now, they’re clicking.
“Last year they made a lot of trades right before the trade deadline and then didn’t kick in, but now you can see the guys put the work in, they’re coming back this year with a fresh start and showing that they’re going to be a team to be reckoned with during the course of the year.”
How did you find your way in the league as a rookie?
“I’ve always been a leader, from playing peewee ball growing up and high school, always trying to bring guys together. At college, it was the same thing. Most of the time, I worked out with the football team, tried always to be ready for the moment, and never stopped working.
“So once I got to the league, I had to keep on fighting. There were three or three power forwards in front of me in Chicago, but at midseason, I was starting. When you see someone fight, work hard, and show they understand what’s going on, and that’s the key. In training camp, you show up in shape, be ready, know the plays, do what they say, and show you’re dedicated.
“I came in early, worked out with the team; it wasn’t mandatory, but I still came in just to try to plant the seed that I’m willing to do what it takes. I’m a team player. Once training camp started, I took shit from nobody. They can always try you, but I know right or wrong, so if they tried to do something out of the ordinary, I let them know.”
Were you okay with being a role player behind star players like Michael Jordan in Chicago and Patrick Ewing in New York?
“My grandfather told me: “Just do your work and let it play out.” I knew I was coming to a team with a lot of scorers. I didn’t try to come in with that ego like “I need the ball.” I just wanted to give it a shot, the chance to get to the NBA, show my talent, and that I can play with whoever. If five guys needed the ball, I’d just say nobody rebounds, nobody’s playing defense, diving, taking charges, so I just inserted that into my game. It wasn’t like a point where I was disappointed they didn’t give me the ball.”
At one point, you were being traded to New York from Chicago. Did that hurt your feelings?
“I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, I wasn’t sad or anything, it’s business. I didn’t let it get me down. I knew I had a job. So I went to New York with my sandwich in my lunch pail and just tried to do the same thing I did in Chicago, just make a name for myself, let people know that I understand basketball. You come to see me play. I’m going to play at a high level at all times. And that’s what happened, I got to New York, and I got to do a little more than in Chicago.
“It was a different system, playing with Patrick [Ewing] who was a post player rather than wing player, but it worked out. I played there for ten years and didn’t have any problems. Fans liked me because I came to work every night, didn’t complain about shots or this and that, I was always ready for the challenge.
“I just tried to look out for guys on the team like Patrick in New York, Michael in Chicago, Vince [Carter], and Tracy [McGrady] in Toronto. These guys will do the scoring, and I’m going to make sure they’re okay with defense, rebounding, and nobody messing with them.”
With players like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, do you think the Raptors should have done better?
“I think we could have gone further. We lost to Philly one year in the seven-game series, and the following year they broke us up. When you get to a point in any sport, you have a two or three-year window once you start going up. We were going up, and then they made a trade. They traded me, and then they went down.
“I blame a lot on management because at the time Lenny Wilkens was the coach, he didn’t prepare us the way we should have been because we should have gone to the Finals that year. From a coaching standpoint and players’ standpoint, we were talented enough.
“We might not have had a lot of big names on the team, but we played well together, like the Detroit team with Chauncey [Billups} and all those guys who went and won the championship, it wasn’t about just having superstars. It was good chemistry. We had good chemistry. Me and AD were the big guys, Vince had a hell of a year, and we just had good chemistry.
“Financials played a part with Tracy. He wanted his own team, so he went to Orlando. He got paid, and he had a great career there and then went to Houston. Vince grew into being a great player. Nobody knew Vince had what he had. Vince was just amazing.”
Many former players got their feelings hurt in the documentary “The Last Dance,” what about you?
“Everybody got to see a different side of Michael Jordan if you didn’t see the Hall of Fame speech. In the speech, he pointed out a lot of people who were waving their fingers at him, so he got the last finger point. The Last Dance is the same thing. He got the final say. If you mention Michael Jordan, you can’t have the first say. You’d better have the last say.
“It was great. We got a chance to see the other side of some other guys. It was a documentary, so it was put together like Michael Jordan always wants to look good, so a lot of guys felt like he let them down, but it’s like a movie, you know? If you aren’t the main actor, you aren’t going to be a big part of it. I didn’t have any bad feelings about what he said about me. He put me in The Last Dance, he put me in the Hall of Fame speech, he put me in Space Jam, so I’ll wait for the next show.
“I tell Mike all the time: “You should take somebody to your car when it rains when it snows, somebody should shovel your snow. You need someone to keep your windows clean because you played with a lot of bums.” And a lot of these guys in The Last Dance are mad about what he said about them. Like, half of y’all couldn’t play, so how are y’all mad? You should be glad that he mentioned you in The Last Dance!”
How about Scottie Pippen’s negative comments regarding Michael Jordan and The Last Dance?
“Scottie felt like he was mistreated, and he didn’t look good. Scottie did some things that we talked about. I’m friends with Scottie and Mike, but I don’t talk about Mike to Scottie or Scottie to Mike.
“I know everybody thinks it’s some feud from The Last Dance. I think it’s something else that happened. We don’t know, but one day we will find out. I don’t think Scottie would just turn from all this from The Last Dance. Some stuff happened 10, 20 years ago, but now he’s got a platform to talk about it. But he did say he wants to have his last say about The Last Dance, so who knows what’s going on?
“Mike’s not going to feud in the press about what Scottie has to say. He’s not going to comment on it. Scottie feels like he’s got six rings. Michael’s got six rings. One thing he did say when he first got to the league when he was a rookie, he said he wanted to be better than Mike.
“He feels like he’s better than Mike. He said it back then; a lot of people just didn’t hear him say it. If you asked 100 people who’s better, 99 would say Michael Jordan, so [Scottie’s] the one. There’s always one, right?
“Scottie went through a lot as time passed. Stress can put you in a different place. He said something about Phil Jackson. I think he apologized for that. But sometimes you get in the heat of battle, you know, and that’s why you’ve got to be careful when you do interviews and talk to people because they dig. They dig holes all the time. They dig up stuff about you and something you said when this could be 30 years ago. But you said it, and then you try to backtrack. I said a lot over my career, but it must be all true because I’ve never had to backtrack about anything I said.”
Has The Last Dance given an accurate picture of the players from the 1980s and 1990s?
“People always respected the ’80s and ’90s. That’s the hottest era ever. Those two decades were a fire in music, sports, entertainment. There weren’t social media, and people were just having a good time, enjoying life. But since the last 20 years, it’s been wide open. A lot of stuff’s come out of the closet. Ain’t no more doors on the closet. The closet is just wide open.”
How do you look back at your own NBA career?
“My name gets mentioned a lot in a lot of conversations, about toughness, this and that. They always say a team needs a guy like Oak. A team needs this. A team needs a leader. So they throw my name around a lot. They keep me in the mix.
“Sometimes, if you played 18 to 20 years ago, they don’t talk about you unless you’ve got championship rings, but they do talk about me a lot. So maybe I need to go. I don’t know. They keep bringing my name up, so that’s a good thing. They always say I’m a bad guy, but they always bring my name up in a good way. So I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Who was your best teammate?
“Michael Jordan. We got to be friends, and whenever I called, he answered the bell. The thing about Mike and me, we talked mess to one another, but we never crossed the line. There’s so much respect. We’re just tight. We don’t fight. We don’t do this or that. We’re just the best of friends.”
Who was your most formidable opponent?
“Shaq was tough. He was just big, and the one thing he liked to do was dunk on you. He never dunked on me. But he was a force, though. I give him credit. Skill-wise, Kevin McHale in the post, Tim Duncan. Karl Malone, but he just flopped too much for me.”
“Besides getting drafted, going to the Finals in 1993-94.”
Worst moment of your career?
“Losing in Game 7 that year in Houston.”
What about the coaches? Who was the best you ever played for?
“For X’s and O’s, Butch Carter. He just understood the game. Coach Carter was probably the best timeout coach as far as game situations. He was like a Bill Belichick. He put you in a position to be great. Especially dead ball timeouts, you would come back into the game with two plays, Tracy and Vince were always in a good position to score, and a lot of coaches don’t do that.”
Who are in your all-time NBA starting five?
“Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James. Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal.”